My father retired at the ripe old age of 60, after 30 years of working for the same organization. 30+ years of service working for one organization is common amongst the baby boomers, but uncommon with millennials where jumping from one company to the next is the norm. Certain professions, such as physicians and teachers, may still follow this traditional 30+ year pattern, but these jobs are the exception, not the norm today.
I’m sure that my father felt a sense of accomplishment/ fulfillment as he looked back on his career. After starting out as a struggling graduate visa student, his long career provided a stable middle-class upbringing for me and my brother, which I am truly grateful for.
Recently, I find myself wondering at what stage of his career did my father feel that sense of fulfillment? Did it occur after 10 years on the job? or was it after 20? Does one really need to work 30+ years to achieve this state of nirvana?
Maybe Forrest Gump knew the best way to find fulfillment, and it is by doing things that you want, for as long as you want, based on your desires and needs. Forrest found fulfillment in all of his endeavours at his own pace.
What is “fulfillment“? According to Oxford Dictionary, it is:
“the achievement of something desired, promised or predicted”
“satisfaction or happiness as a result of fully developing one’s potential”
Synonyms for fulfillment include: satisfaction, contentment, gratification, peace of mind, vindication, achievement, attainment
Sounds straightforward enough, but 2 people working at the same job may reach career fulfillment at different times because they have different personal goals that they are striving for.
We all have different goals and aspirations which we set out for ourselves at the beginning of our careers. For some people, they may not find career fulfillment until:
- reaching a certain title or position in the organization
- reaching a certain income level
- reaching a certain number of years to qualify for a pension
- publishing a certain # of papers (i.e. 100) or publishing in a specific journal like Science or Nature (in the case of a professor or scientist)
- reaching of certain market share or successful exit (public offering or acquisition), if running your own business
- winning an award or championship, or making it professionally for an athlete
For others, achieving job satisfaction comes from intangibles, such as contributing to society and helping others. But, how do you know when you have helped enough? How many students does a teacher need to teach to find fulfillment? How many patients does a physician need to treat to find fulfillment? There is no exact number, and the answer will depend on the individual themselves.
“Why would you do that? You are in your prime?”
This was the response from one of my colleagues when I mentioned I was planning on scaling back to part-time next year (my 10th year as a staff physician). A newly-minted physician usually needs a few years under their belt before becoming competent and confident in their skills and knowledge. By 7-10 years of practice, most physicians are well-oiled machines and will reach their peak skills and knowledge for patient care. I suspect that the 7-10 year peak performance period applies to other professions as well.
Some would argue that a physician should work at least as long as it took to educate them. This may range from 5-10+ years of education after undergrad, to train as a physician (depending on medical school and residency). However, this argument falls into the “sunk cost” fallacy, which is to continue an action based on past decisions (time, money, resources) rather than a choosing a more rational choice at the present time.
I am partly guilty of succumbing to the sunk costs fallacy. I set 10 years as my goal to scale down to part-time work, as it took me 10 years (4 years medical school + 5 years residency + 1 year fellowship) to learn my trade. It really doesn’t make any sense, but to my lizard brain, it feels rational to work full-time at least as long as the number of years that I was in “school”. (Technically, physicians are working during residency and treating patients, therefore, should the time in residency be added to the number of years worked? But I digress….)
My primary reason for going to part-time in the near future is because I have realized my career goals are fulfilled. There was no specific day when I woke up and thought “Yes! Pat on the back for a good career!”, but more of a gradual feeling which has become more apparent over the past year.
Going into medical school, I had planned on a 30+ year career in medicine at full-throttle. Looking back at my Padawan self, I can only sit back and smile at his idealistic naivety :). The training to become a physician is a long pipeline, such that you come out as a different person than when you started. I entered medical school as a bachelor and finished residency as a husband and father of 2. These are very different worlds! I still enjoy my job and helping patients, however, I do not think that adding another 20+ years at full-throttle will bring any significant increase in fulfillment for me, other than trading in my time for money.
Maybe career fulfillment plateaus and stays at the same level, or it continues upwards or spirals downwards depending on the person and job. My plan is to venture into part-time work and maintain that fulfillment plateau (or upward trend) throughout the rest of my career.
When you have “won the game” in investing, financial gurus recommend decreasing the risk of your portfolio by dialing back the equity exposure. I wonder if the same concept can be applied to career fulfillment. If financially possible, consider decreasing your work hours to spend more time with your family and to take care of your mental and physical health to avoid burn-out, which in turn will help keep your job enjoyable and satisfying. Only time will tell whether this is the right path for me, or if this is simply a mid-life crisis moment!
One thing that I know is by becoming financially independent, you eliminate (or lessen the influence of) money in the equation, thus allowing you to see clearly what fulfills you and how you want to spend your time. You may realize that you have reached career fulfillment in less time than expected.
As for my colleague’s question “Why would you do that? You are in your prime?”. Being in my prime is exactly why I am scaling back to part-time. I want to spend the majority of my “prime” years with my family and do the things that I was always “too busy” to do. I find it hard to believe that my future-self will look back at this decision with regret.
Lastly, I want to leave something for you to ponder…Recently, I have been asking my family and friends this question: “Assuming money is not an issue, how many years do you need to work at your job to feel fulfilled?”
Interestingly, they all responded with the same answer of “5-10 years”, even though they vary in age and work in different professions/industries. Perhaps, there is a correlation between career fulfillment and time to peak job performance, like in my case.
How about you?